Imagining the loss of your children was one of the recommendations of the Stoic school of philosophy which included among its members Epictetus (55 AD – 135 AD), Marcus Aurelius (121 AD -180 AD), Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) and Musonius Rufus (1st century AD). Stoicism is the western equivalent of Zen Buddhism minus the meditation. Among other things the Stoics taught that destructive emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, and dissatisfaction are all caused by errors in thinking, ideas that inspired Albert Ellis, the grandfather of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
The core of Stoic philosophy was that to have a good and meaningful life you need to overcome your insatiability. As a financial planner I’ve listened to more than my fair share of goals and desires that clients believed would bring them happiness. The problem is that once a goal or desire has been achieved we tend to adapt to its presence and don’t find it as desirable as we once did. Eventually we feel just as dissatisfied as before and a new goal or desire emerges as the process rinses and repeats. The solution, thought the Stoics, was to develop techniques to help you want what you have rather than what you think you need.
Arguably the most important technique the Stoics developed was Negative Visualization, imagining the loss of things we value, whether it be our health, our job, our friends, our spouse or our home. Doing this, they believed, would help prevent us from taking these things for granted and help us value them more than we would otherwise. Furthermore, the Stoics advised that we periodically remind ourselves that this day could also be our last. In his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William Irvine says:
“Such reflection, rather than converting us into hedonists, will make us appreciate how wonderful it is that we are alive and have the opportunity to fill this day with activity. This in turn will make it less likely that we will squander our days. In other words, when the Stoics counsel us to live each day as if it were our last, their goal is not to change our activities but to change our state of mind as we carry out those activities. In particular, they don’t want us to stop thinking about or planning for tomorrow; instead they want us, as we think about and plan for tomorrow, to remember to appreciate today.”
Instead of spending our time thinking about the things we want the Stoics advised spending that time thinking about the things we already have and how much we would miss them if they were no longer here. If you doubt the power of this technique watch this brief video.
The Stoics also advised practicing poverty and/or experimenting with some voluntary discomfort. In today’s world this would translate into going camping or backpacking instead of splashing out on luxury hotels, underdressing in cold weather or eating simpler and less processed foods. By doing so we learn to appreciate good hotels, warm clothes and rich food while at the same time learning that we can do without these things and eliminating the fear that one day we might have to. If we practice Negative Visualization regularly the Stoics thought we would come to experience joy, the same joy that a young child feels because every experience is new and exciting.
The wisdom of the Stoics is the same wisdom that virtually every important sage, philosopher and spiritual leader has arrived at independently through the ages, namely, that if you seek calm and contentment in life, it’s easier to change your own desires than it is to change the world.
“Man is affected not by events but by the view he takes of them.”
Epictetus (55 AD – 135 AD)